These cars represent the future of D.C.’s cityscape. They represent our municipal identity and our unwillingness to be compared with that self-aggrandizing megalopolis up north. (Or maybe our desire to be like New York. They could represent that as well.) They represent ideas of beauty and how beauty looks when displayed on a sedan barreling down Connecticut Avenue. These cars are about all of those things.
This is what led up to the decision. A story about a city and its taxicabs.
Four cars on display
Here they are, next to the Mini Coopers.
It was a relatively tiny display at the Washington Auto Show last weekend, before the panel’s recommendation had been made. Nothing compared with Ford, which muscled out a third of the upstairs exhibit hall, or Fiat, which had, in its zippy Italian way, installed an indoor driving track with potted-plant obstacles.
This tableau, at the bottom of an escalator in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, was just four cars.
A woman walks up to the display. She wore a denim jacket. She put her hands on her hips, cocked her head and considered the cars. She said to her friend:
“Well. They’re not that ugly.”
These were the future taxicabs of Washington, D.C.
Not these, specifically. Cars like these, though.
The city council of the District of Columbia has made a decision: All of the taxis in the District — all 7,000 of them — must have a standard color scheme. Black Pearl cabs will no longer be charcoal. Checker Cabs will no longer be checkered. The District identity would usurp the individual company’s identity.
These prototypes at the auto show represented possibilities, meant to prompt wide discussion. One of the cars is mostly green and yellow, with a hint of gray. One is mostly gray and yellow, with a hint of green. One is red, gray and black; the last is red, yellow and white. All of them involve a horizontal stripe, a whoosh, a sporty sense of forward motion.
These cars did prompt wide discussion. The city widely discussed how much it hated them.
At the auto show, John Miller of Silver Spring stopped by the taxi display, with his teenage son and his son’s friend. In front of the four cars, there was a ballot box, where voters could select their favorites. “Go ahead,” he encouraged his entourage. “You’re the ones who are going to have to live with them,” he said. Long after he’s gone.
‘Taxis are our ambassadors’
On Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) put forth a piece of legislation. It was titled the Taxicab Commission Service Improvement Amendment Act. It was 32 pages long. It dealt with matters such as wheelchair accessibility and the reduction of carbon emissions through the use of hybrid vehicles. It discussed mandatory Global Positioning System devices and credit card readers with printable receipts.
It also discussed taxi color.
Specifically: “The Mayor shall . . . issue rules requiring all taxicabs operating in the District of Columbia to be of a uniform color.”
The council tasked the D.C. Taxicab Commission with envisioning a color scheme. The commission created the One Color Panel, a four-person subgroup, passing the job on to it. The One Color Panel’s recommendations on Wednesday will be the first step in the coloric unification of the District’s cabs.
“Taxis are our ambassadors,” Cheh says. Tourists chug into Union Station, and taxis are the part of Washington that comes out to greet them. “It’s like,” Cheh explains, “how you turn up on your first date.”
Right now, Washington turns up on its first date looking confused.
Especially compared with its fellow cities around the country. Take Los Angeles. In the city of Los Angeles, which has a population of 3.8 million, there are nine licensed taxi companies, each with their own colors and markings. Nine companies, nine colors.
In the District of Columbia, which has a population of 618,000, there are 118.
Beginning, alphabetically, with the ABC Cab Company, whose vehicles are white and “cinnamon brown,” and ending with the Yourway Cab Company, whose color is “light briar brown,” with a whole passel of similarly poetic colors in between.
“It’s a regulatory choice,” explains Al LaGasse, executive vice president of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association. The reason L.A.’s taxi scheme looks like a rainbow and Washington’s looks like the jumbo-size Crayola box is because “it’s easier to get into the business in D.C. than it is in other cities.”
Other than New York, LaGasse can’t think of another city with a required uniform color scheme. Not off the top of his head. Years ago, he thinks, Atlanta might have looked into it. London’s used to be all black, but that’s not the case anymore.
“Oh, wait,” he says. LaGasse works with a guy who used to be stationed in Baku, Azerbaijan. The co-worker says that all of the cabs in Baku were required to be purple.
So there it is. Washington, D.C., and Azerbaijan.
‘Designs are not good’
Maybe one issue is that the proposed designs are, indeed, that ugly.
Ugly is in the eye of the beholder. But when these four prototypes were introduced to the public last year on Dec. 10, there was an immediate discomfort, a visceral irritation, a proprietary “No!” from D.C. residents. Even Cheh didn’t like them. She thought them “garish.”
The commission received more than 35,000 responses to an online poll about the colors. They were overwhelmingly negative. People thought the sample cab designs were too cluttered. Drivers believed the complex color combos would make paint jobs a nightmare. Neville Waters, the spokesman for the commission, forwards a sampling of the e-mail responses.
Emotional: “I am so disappointed with the level of quality of the proposed designs.”
Straightforward: “Those taxi designs were not good.”
And, the crux of the matter: “I was disappointed not to see the most obvious color choice, solid yellow, as an option.”
It is true. In the 100-plus designs submitted by D.C. design firm McKissack & McKissack, whose spokesperson did not agree to an interview request for this article, there are cabs that are largely yellow, even predominantly. But there is not a totally solid yellow cab.
Before Cheh introduced the Improvement Act, she sponsored a survey to see what colors appealed most to the public. Of 4,025 respondents, 38 percent chose yellow — more than twice the percentage choosing the next most popular color, which was red. When people think of taxis, they think of yellow.
Of course, they think of yellow because of New York. New York’s taxis have been painted yellow since 1967, when the city decided it was the best way to cut down on unlicensed cabs. Does D.C. really want to be New York? (Isn’t that what it comes down to, again and again? Is D.C. tryyying to be New Yoooork?).
Lee Eiseman used to live in Georgetown; she knows the complexity of Washington. She’s also a color expert. It’s not a woo-woo title; she runs a business helping companies find meaning in their palettes. One of her major clients is Pantone, creator of the Pantone Matching System. If you saw articles earlier this year heralding emerald green as the color of 2013, that was Eiseman’s team — a decision made after months of research.
Eiseman is e-mailed pictures of the four options that were on display at the auto show.
“The Kelly green would be best,” she says in a phone interview. But it has yellow in it. “And do you really want to be derivative of New York?”
If Eiseman had her druthers, she would make the cabs one simple color, and that color would be orange. “There’s a happy quality that goes along with it, because its made up of yellow and red,” she says. Yellow is a warm and inviting color, she says, and red represents energy and speed.
“Orange,” she says. “Orange would be my top choice.”
In Cheh’s online survey, only 11 percent of respondents liked orange.
‘I drive a beautiful car’
It’s a weekday evening at the Capitol View branch of the D.C. Public Library. The One Color Panel of the D.C. Taxicab Commission is holding a forum — the last chance for the public to comment on the future of their city streets. The meeting will be held in a fluorescent basement room of the Southeast library. Rows and rows of plastic chairs have been set up to accommodate the seething public.
At 6 p.m., the scheduled start time, the public shows up. The public consists of one journalist from The Washington Post. There’s no public at all. There is just the journalist, Stanley Tapscott — the representative from the One Color Panel — and Neville Waters, the commission’s communications specialist. The paradox of public engagement: The public is engaged when it involves writing a bilious e-mail. The public is not engaged when it involves missing dinner.
Tapscott is on the taxicab commission, but he’s also a driver. He has been for 50 years, most of them with Capitol Taxi. He has the settled, drum-bellied look of a man who’s spent most of his life behind the wheel of a car. It is very reassuring.
“I drive a beautiful car,” he says. “A good car.” It’s a Lincoln, painted black with an orange band, like all Capitol cabs. He loves the colors of that car. “It’s a part of me.”
Truth be told, Tapscott doesn’t think that it matters much to passengers what color their cabs are. People care that cabs are clean. People care that cabs stop for them. The color? It’s just not important. It’s not like, say, a dome light.
Rooftop dome lights really are important. And under the Improvement Act, passengers could more easily use them to report “failures to haul” — the cabbie term for an available driver refusing to stop for someone on the street, an issue intrinsically tied up with race and class. A dome light is important. Nobody is writing e-mails about the dome light.
When it comes down to it, maybe the people of Washington are happy, as Tapscott speculates, to get into any cab that will stop for them. Taxi color is an issue of little practical importance, but huge symbolic importance.
Perhaps the cabs should be red and white, to symbolize the state flag, standing in for the state we do not have. Perhaps the cabs should be three different colors. Washington is a complicated city, after all. A seat of power abutting neighborhoods of poverty. A melting pot of national and international cultures. An arena of clashing political beliefs.
As of the public meeting, Tapscott was still not sure how he was going to vote.
‘An important cog in D.C.’
“I’m kind of like the pope,” Ron Linton says, laughing. “He feels about his job the way I feel about mine.”
Linton is the chairman of the taxicab commission. It is to him that the panel will make its recommendation. (He is joking, by the way. He’s not going to resign — he’s just commenting on his desire to stay out of the color fray until the recommendation is made.)
Linton’s office, down by the Anacostia Freeway in a building that also includes a medical clinic and a Social Security office, is bland and governmental. His hair is white, his tie is impressionistic and floral, he’s wearing his plastic ID badge on a lanyard around his neck. He comes across as a patient, practical man. He’s been in his position for about a year and a half, meaning he entered office about six months before the improvement bill was introduced.
“I would anticipate,” he speculates, that the panel will recommend either a single-color option, or a two-color option. He doesn’t know which colors. He’s waiting until the Wednesday meeting, which will be open to the public. Even after the recommendations are made, they must be approved by the commission as a whole, and then brought to the D.C. Council. There will be another 30-day public comment period. It’s still a few months before the first uniform taxis would hit the streets.
He sees the need for these improvements, and he understands why the colors are important to some industries, to certain groups of people. “The color fits into the aesthetics,” of the city, he says. They are “an important cog in D.C. selling itself as a great place to visit.”
Outside, in a small, crammed parking lot lines of taxi drivers snake their way up to the building.
All the colors of the spectrum. For now.